The fifth in our series of blog posts written by BLF 2013 speakers.
A few years ago, an executive director of a small nonprofit confided in me about how tough it was for her to motivate her board to fundraise. She said, “I need my board to be more involved in fundraising so that I won’t have to be!” I was amazed. Having staffed board members in fundraising for many years myself, my immediate thought was, “If you are able to successfully involve your board members in fundraising, you will have more work to do, not less!”
Ever since that conversation, I’ve wondered: Rather than simply addressing the barriers that keep board members from being engaged in fundraising, maybe we should ask these questions: What are the barriers and misconceptions that keep staff members from being more successful at engaging board members in fundraising? And how can we help staff members overcome those barriers?
Over the past year, while doing research for a book that I am writing for BoardSource on engaging board members in fundraising, I interviewed CEOs, directors of development, board members, and others to better understand what keeps staff from being more successful in this endeavor, and what they can do to turn the situation around. Some common themes I heard included the following:
We forget that board members are volunteers. Board members have busy lives — they do not live in the day-to-day reality of our nonprofit organization the way we do. When we forget this, we don’t provide adequate context and background on issues, and we don’t reinforce the connection to the mission that board members need on a regular basis to keep them engaged and motivated.
We wait for board members to mobilize themselves and take initiative around fundraising. Board members who are uncomfortable with the notion of fundraising are unlikely to step up on their own. In most organizations with professional staff, fundraising is usually a staff-led function that board members assist with, so board members depend on us to mobilize them and give them guidance — respectfully and with a deft touch.
We use a “one size fits all” approach. Not all board members can or will engage in fundraising activities in the same way. One board member may be great at hosting a social gathering for donors, while another is a natural at thanking donors for their gifts. Staff members who approach the board as a single entity rather than board members individually risk missing out on the unique talents that each board member brings to the table.
So, what can we do?
Rather than trying to “motivate our board members to fundraise,” ask this instead: ‘How can we set up the conditions in which board members will motivate themselves?’ This is not semantics; it’s a game-changer (and it’s grounded in current research on motivation theory). When our framework is to ‘motivate the board,’ we might look for ways to ‘control,’ e.g., to make board members feel pressured to fundraise, and perhaps guilty if they don’t. While pressure and guilt can work to motivate people in the short-run, it is less successful in the long-run. Here’s the better way: Adopt a style that affirms the board member’s perspective and autonomy. This creates an environment that encourages self-motivation. In practice, this means
- building relationships with board members and listening openly to understand their interests, needs, and concerns. This will help us better understand their individual perspectives and appreciate what they can and want to offer to the organization.
- providing opportunities for board members to connect with the mission of our organizations in a personal way
- taking the time to lay out the background and rationale of our fundraising strategy and the board’s role in it
- inviting (rather than pressuring) board members to become involved in fundraising, and offering choices about what their participation can look like
- providing training and assistance so board members can be successful at the fundraising activities in which they are engaged
- providing ongoing support and encouragement, and working with board members in a respectful way
The goal is for board members to engage in fundraising activities because they themselves see the value in it, have a commitment to it, and can be successful at it. Our role as staff is about facilitating that awareness and aspiration.
What do you think?
For 25 years, Kathy Hedge has worked with a range of nonprofits where she has supported board member involvement in fundraising. She now offers consulting and training in the areas of fundraising, board development, and strategic planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.